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There's Something About Tom Bates (News Analysis)

By Ted Friedman
Saturday September 01, 2012 - 01:59:00 PM
There's Something About Tom.
Ted Friedman
There's Something About Tom.

Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates rallied his supporters at his fourth mayoral run kick-off and fund-raiser, Wednesday, showing some of the style that has made him Berkeley's longest sitting mayor, ever. He's been mayor since 2002.

The elegant setting was Berkeley Mills, a furniture design workshop and showrooms on 7th Street.

There's something about "Tom"…which most of his constituents call him. A big glad-handing guy, even some of his most persistent opponents can't help liking him--even sixteen year council-veteran Kriss Worthington, who nonetheless made a last minute decision to oppose Bates after repeatedly clashing with him at council meetings

At his own opening event, Worthington said that the last straw which convinced him to run for mayor was the majority’s vote, at Bates’ insistence, to place a loosely specified bond issue (Measure M) on the November ballot. It prioritizes undefined street repairs over needed environmental infrastructure improvements, especially to watershed management, which would have benefited now-deteriorating Aquatic Park and addressed periodic flooding, particularly in South and West Berkeley.

But there's something about Tom, something that keeps him running for Berkeley mayor. His detractors say the "something" is a network of developers and other special interest groups. 

A member of the Planet reporting team who attended the soiree spotted a predictable number of participants in the development industry in attendance, including commercial real estate brokers, builders, property owners and lawyers.. There was a smattering of self-identified artists, teachers, business owners, Bates staffers, and a lot of old-time political operatives, including District 5 incumbent Councilmember Laurie Capitelli (now being challenged by Sophie Hahn). 

In attendance, as well, were five German students from Jena, Berkeley's German sister-city, who met Bates in Germany recently, and at his suggestion, are studying Berkeley politics first hand. 

But what is that something about Tom? Surely, it's not his power. Berkeley is one of forty U.S. cities with city manager-city council governments, in which the city manager runs the city partnered with the city council. In Berkeley, which is supposed to be a “weak-mayor city”, the mayor, elected at-large, simply presides over city council meetings, where he has one vote, making him mostly a power-broker rather than a power wielder. 

Bates presently lobbies and votes with a six-council voting bloc, which its opponents (three of them on council) say has drifted away from Berkeley's progressive politics into conservatism. 

In addition to environmentalists and neighborhood groups disappointed by Measure M’s lack of focus, this year's November mayoral race has attracted opponents of the mayor-sponsored Measure S, which would add sitting on sidewalks to lying on sidewalks, blocking sidewalks, and other unsightly behaviors already banned in Berkeley’s struggling commercial districts, as well as opponents of Measure T, the Bates-backed attempt to re-zone West Berkeley to allow redevelopment of several big properties which is opposed by many West Berkeley artists, manufacturers and residents. 

Wednesday's campaign launch was Bates-lite, pitching Bates' conciliatory political style over substance. 

Councilmember Susan Wengraf, District. 6, introduced the mayor, noting she had opposed him when he first ran, but when he came to her council office, offering to work with her, she fell under his spell. He "sets aside old political grudges," Wengraf said, in favor of "let's move on." 

"He could be out golfing, but instead he's mayor, still optimistic, determined to make Berkeley best,'' Wengraf observed. 

Bates "has the courage to be tough…the heart to be kind," Wengraf enthused. 

But opponents to Bates' support of the West-Berkeley development plan and his sponsorship of no-sit say that at midnight in council meetings he’s seemed neither courageous nor kind, as we have reported in more than one piece here. 

Basking in Wengraf's warm praise, Bates promised a face-to-face grass roots campaign to get out the vote. Characterizing himself as Berkeley's "number one volunteer," Bates said his son told him, "you're not being paid." 

City records from 2004 list the official salary for the Berkeley mayor’s office as $40,152, but Bates receives a higher pension from twenty years in the state assembly, and he can’t legally collect both at the same time. 

Bates said he had given up his car in favor of walking, "We recycle everything," he said; "we have worms eating our compost," to laughs. 

He invited everyone over for dinner, for more laughs. 

Getting serious, Bates said he will push to assist Berkeley students who need to improve their algebra to get into college, and provide other educational outreach where needed. 

As always, the mayor claimed that Berkeley is spending three million dollars for services to the mentally ill and homeless, a figure questioned by Measure S opponents. 

Asked whether Bates was still the progressive they recall from the 70s, a number of supporters at the event still viewed him as progressive, despite opponents' charges that Bates is selling out the city to developers. 

Bates is unabashedly pro-development, taking personal credit for bringing $110 million dollars in development money to Berkeley. 

The mayor would, like, he said, to make Berkeley competitive with Silicon Valley, boosting what he calls "green jobs". 

Carol Denney on behalf of the Planet informally surveyed Bates supporters in the room for their attitudes to Bates-sponsored Measure S (no-sit), reporting that none of five Bates supporters she interviewed supported the measure. 

Attendees numbered about seventy-five, all of whom had to contribute $25-250 to Bates' campaign for the privilege of attending. 

Worthington's kick-off was a massive free feed at a popular Southside restaurant, though contribution envelopes were scattered about for those who wished to pay. 

Bates' food was donated, prepared by Judith Iglehart, his new city-employee chief of staff, who called it "finger food." 

Southside Planet reporter Ted Friedman went "west, young man," way west, for this one. Carol Denney contributed to this report.